Thursday, May 27, 2004

Sitcoms: The Future

The New York Times recently added to the growing list of articles about the death of the sitcom. I'm skeptical that the sitcom form is really dying, for two reasons. One is mentioned at the end of that Times article: the last time the sitcom was dying, all it took to revive it was one massive hit, The Cosby Show. The next massive hit probably won't come this season, but it's not unreasonable to think that it will come eventually. The studios and networks will always be looking for new sitcoms, because a hit sitcom is so enormously valuable to a network and even more to a production company: not only to hit sitcoms run a long time, but they make the kind of syndication money that most dramas never can (the big hits in syndicated reruns are mostly sitcoms, plus the occasional drama like Star Trek or Law and Order).

Second, even if a particular kind of sitcom is dying out, that doesn't mean the form has lost its popularity. The article tells us that "the very look of the network comedy, almost all of which are now shot on videotape by three cameras on a stage in front of a live studio audience, is so numbingly similar that young viewers will not even give new ones a passing glance." Now, one part of that statement is inaccurate: no new sitcom has been shot on videotape since the mid-'90s. Most sitcoms, with or without a live audience, use film; a few newer shows, like Arrested Development, use high-definition video. But let that pass, because the general point seems like a fair one: the format of doing a sitcom like a play, with a live audience and three or four cameras to get the action from multiple angles, strikes a lot of viewers now as tired.

But of course, that's not what defines the sitcom. There was a stretch in the history of the sitcom, from about the late '50s through the early '70s, when almost no sitcoms were shot before a live audience. In the '60s, there were only two hit shows that used the multi-camera, studio-audicence format (the I Love Lucy format): The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Lucy Show. Almost everything else -- The Andy Griffith Show, Leave it to Beaver, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Get Smart -- was shot with a single camera and no studio audience, more like a movie than a play.

The live-audience format took over again in the '70s when Norman Lear and MTM Productions both committed themselves to bringing back the studio audience. Lear wanted to recapture the broad, theatrical style of early TV comedy; MTM's Grant Tinker wanted to harken back to The Dick Van Dyke Show; but both Lear and Tinker established the live-audience sitcom as the "hip" format, by contrast with the single-camera format, which was starting to seem as tired and creaky as the studio-audience format seems now. (What goes around, comes around.) The format took over so completely that two shows, The Odd Couple and Happy Days, switched from single-camera to studio audience in mid run. By the end of the decade, the only sitcoms that didn't have a live studio audience were M*A*S*H and Barney Miller (which had a live audience when it started, but dropped it a few years later when creator Danny Arnold found he couldn't get the scripts rewritten in time for the taping).

The point is, we're used to thinking of that format as the format that defines the sitcom, but it isn't so. And the live-audience format has gotten more and more problematic over the years because sitcoms have gotten much less theatrical. A show like Seinfeld had dozens of short scenes, many of which had to be filmed without an audience; Friends often had a somewhat low-key acting style that played more to the camera than to the people in the studio. Sitcoms have gotten more like movies than plays, and with that, there's less of a justification for shooting them like plays. The future of the sitcom, at least for now, is the Andy Griffith format: no audience, no proscenium staging, one camera.

Now, it's often pointed out that recent single-camera sitcoms have rarely been huge hits: Scrubs and Malcolm in the Middle are successful, but not blockbusters. But those shows aren't really similar to the single-camera sitcoms of the '60s. They tend to have elaborate camerawork, special effects, fantasy sequences -- in other words, they are as elaborately and expensively shot as dramas, but they happen to be comedies. The problem is, first of all, that such shows cost a lot, and second of all, that they don't have the spontaneousness and sense of pure fun interaction that the big hit sitcoms have: there's always a certain consciousness of the camera gimmickry, whereas with a sitcom you ought to be focused on the characters and the way they interact.

The thing to remember about shows like The Andy Griffith Show is not only that they were one-camera, but that they were shot fast. Director Alan Rafkin recalled that an Andy Griffith episode was shot in something like three days, with almost all the shooting done on the standing sets and the backlot. If you try to make a sitcom like an expensive drama, with a weeklong shooting schedule and lots of sets and location shooting, you might as well just be making a drama. The point of a sitcom is to get the actors, give them good material, and turn them loose. That's hard to do if the shooting process becomes too cumbersome.

One single-camera show that does seem to understand this is the overhyped but nonetheless excellent Arrested Development, perhaps because the executive producer, Ron Howard, is Opie and Richie Cunningham. Explaining the hand-held camera format of the show, the director of photography explained:
Ron Howard wanted this to be a single-camera show more like the way sitcoms used to be, from his years on Happy Days. He liked the notion of giving the cast a day to rehearse and rewrite, and then shooting really fast, in a single day, improvising as we go along, changing things, getting as much of that on tape as possible. Instead of spending time on detailed lighting, jelling windows, deliberations over focus, etc., we decided to go for a lightning-fast pace on the shoot

While hand-held cameras still make me kind of nauseous, the basic point is a really good one: a sitcom needs to feel fast and spontaneous, and you can't get that if the director is going to take all day setting up the shots. That's one thing that I think we'll be seeing more of: sitcoms where the actors gather on the set, they turn on the camera, and they just do it, clean and quick and as funny as they can make it.

The other thing I think we'll be seeing, or rather hearing, is the return of the canned laugh track. And I think this will be a good thing for the sitcom. I'll explain why in my next post.

1 comment:

Glenn said...

I saw this show on myspace called "Mama's Boys & Me".I think if this show was on T.V. it would be a major hit especially with the cast on the show.